Putting out a magazine involves periodic late-night exertions. These often are the occasions for thought-provoking discussion, just as they were in college. This discourse is seldom so thought-provoking as to be memorable, but every now and then, a thought does detonate high in the air, and the flash illuminates a subject from a different angle.
For example, a colleague of ours has a package of crackers in her desk. They are made almost entirely of bran. Such things can be tasty enough, but this particular product isn’t; the remorseful purchaser observed that the overall effect (taste, aroma and mouth feel) is reminiscent of slightly moistened cardboard.
We commented that even products seemingly designed to be unappetizing can become remarkably attractive to someone trapped in an office at .
“Many people feel that way about vending machines, too,” she pointed out.
Indeed they do. During the heroic days of the full-line revolution, a number of pioneer operators believed that vending soon would provide everything that the customer could get at a quick-service restaurant, but with greater speed, fewer errors, less attitude and no travel-time.
While that was not quite attainable in 1968, it certainly is today, for astill limited (but growing) range of meal options. Unfortunately, the industry consensus seems to have subsided into a resigned view that people who use vending machines at work are never going to embrace the experience ardently, because they really don’t want to be there. However outstanding the quality, no matter how appealing the value proposition, the machine under the steam-pipes in the basement will not be perceived as one of several optional destinations, each with its own allure to be weighed in making a choice. It will be a last resort, no matter what.
Our colleague observed that, when she is compelled to buy something as a last resort and it turns out to be unexpectedly good, she is more likely to buy it again than if it were just satisfactory.
One knows the feeling. Perhaps another way to look at the phenomenon is to consider that, all too often, those who provide the “last resort” do so grudgingly – sometimes, we think, even vindictively or punitively. It is too easy to assume that “captive” customers can be overcharged for so-so products or services; if they cannot be overcharged, the offering must be sufficiently unappealing to punish them for their insolence in compelling the seller to serve them. Something of this attitude underlies the older approach to school foodservice. (The newer approach to school snacking appears to have arisen from the fear that, if the little rascals like something, they will pig out on it. That danger can be avoided by restricting them to items like bran crackers.)
The maker of a last-resort purchase too often has been conditioned to believe that the seller will say “What did you expect?” If the item is a pleasant surprise, it certainly makes a positive impact.
We pointed out, though, that you can’t get any real marketing traction out of the slogan “Not as bad as you’d feared,” or even “Better than you expected!” It doesn’t even work for the airlines, who are uniquely insulated from becoming a last resort; it won’t work for anyone else, either.
Back when airlines provided food, usually grudgingly, we often thought that they went wrong by trying to emulate what somebody thought of as moderately upscale restaurant fare, but with much smaller portions, lower fat and cholesterol and the compromises imposed by the need to rethermalize the stuff six hours after it was prepared. We always were pleased to encounter something that obviously had been formulated with holding and rethermalization in mind, something that took advantage of the service method rather than defying it.
Four decades ago, some devoted students of vending argued that the industry should not try to ape other, more traditional service approaches, but should create its own distinctive modern identity. One of them used to denounce pictures of china cups and plates on the fronts of vending machines; he wanted disposables depicted. Why pretend to be what we weren’t? Why not be proud of what we could do uniquely well?
These are matters that, perhaps, deserve renewed attention. Operators who don’t believe in their products will have a hard time convincing anyone else to do so.